“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
-often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but of uncertain origin
The late New Testament scholar, John Pilch, noted that Jesus, as rendered in the Gospel of John, “tends to get a bit long-winded.” All those extended discourses, repetitions, and interlocking phrases stand in stark contrast to Mark’s rustic efficiency, to be sure, and if it seems like Jesus has been saying goodbye to the disciples for weeks now, you’d be right. This is the fourth week in a row in which the lectionary’s gospel reading comes from John – unless you’re celebrating the Ascension this Sunday, in which case you get a synoptic reprieve. And yes, this is the third consecutive week culled from John’s multi-chapter Farewell Discourse.
Those lost in the Johannine word-cloud might be forgiven for missing the clues in today’s gospel that Jesus has stopped talking to the disciples and is now directly addressing the Father. In other words, Jesus is praying, not preaching. Or is that a misleading distinction?
Perhaps a more helpful terminology comes from the first principle of good writing: Show, don’t tell. In what is sometimes called “The Great Intercessory Prayer,” Jesus stops telling his clueless disciples how to serve, love, and live peacefully with one another. He stops telling them that the Father and Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit. He stops telling them they must turn from the world’s ways in order to experience true joy. He stops telling them these things, not because the disciples already know and understand – their behavior over the next several days will destroy that illusion – nor does he stop because the lessons no longer apply. He stops telling them in order to show them.
As with the elaborate gesture with which he began the evening – washing the disciples’ feet – Jesus gets more traction with his slow-learning followers by embodying the word than from uttering it. He’s still very much John’s wordy Jesus here, but his words are now clearly words of prayer. Jesus is showing them how to be one with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit through the practice of prayer.
True prayer is oneness with the Father. Jesus has not changed here, for he is always already one with the Father. The disciples, however, are only beginning to understand how the Father is revealed to them in Christ Jesus. They have not yet learned what Paul will later make explicit (1 Thessalonians 5): pray without ceasing. Paul’s command seems impossible to those of us with busy lives and a biological need for sleep. Jesus shows us what the impossible looks like. We may not equal the example this side of the grave, but we are to make a start in this life while we can.
True prayer is done in the manner of Jesus. Consider how often the gospels show Jesus praying. Prayer is not a distinct activity separate from his so-called active life. Prayer is integral to his ministry. For those of us who must suffer the wages of sin, prayer is necessary medicine. Like the prayer Jesus utters before Lazarus’ tomb (John 11), Jesus prays aloud so those who hear him – including those of us hearing him today – will believe, understand, and do likewise.
True prayer is done through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just before Jesus prays, he promises the disciples they will receive the Spirit, who will turn their sorrow to joy and overcome the world’s chaos in the Father’s peace. As Paul reassures us, the Spirit confirms us as God’s children and fills in the many deficiencies of our rudimentary prayer life:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8: 26-27)
Attentive readers know that as soon as Jesus finishes the Great Intercessory Prayer, he leads the disciples across the Kidron Valley to the garden where Judas and the soldiers will soon meet him. The showing thus continues as Jesus suffers, dies, and is raised from the dead – a sequence no one would believe, much less follow, if they had not seen, if they had merely been told.
But John’s talkative Jesus had been showing the disciples this new way to live from the beginning. The first words Jesus utters in John’s gospel are spoken to the first disciples: “What are you looking for?” and “Come and see.” He soon tells Philip, “Follow me,” and assures the no longer sarcastic Nathaniel, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”
And we, who arrive too late to see the historical Jesus in the flesh, must continue to learn and follow what he shows us, not by staring into the sky like the disciples at the Ascension, but by praying as the disciples do upon the return to Jerusalem, and by boldly following Jesus’ example, even when, as today’s reading from 1 Peter warns, that means we, too, will suffer.
Indeed, 1 Peter assures us those who follow Jesus’ example should expect to suffer. Accordingly, we must prepare ourselves by practices of humility, discipline, attentiveness, and resistance to the accuser’s roar, knowing not only that we do not suffer alone, but that the God to whom we are united in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit will “restore, support, strengthen, and establish” us.
If we, who live after the Ascension, have not seen the man Jesus in the flesh, we do have the Spirit. This Spirit, as we have seen, makes our feeble prayers complete, and in so doing leads us to true freedom, bringing us ever closer to oneness with God the Father, for:
…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3: 17-18)
Jesus has shown us the way. The Spirit is our helper and guide. The Father is our source and destination. The journey beckons. Is there any reason not to begin?
Image: The Trinity/Hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev, 15th century